Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday June 26, 2013


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Volume 5, Number 26                                                                                    New Column Every Wednesday


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Billy Greco's NEAR
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Sunday August 11th


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By Dave Dykes                                                                            CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

This Wednesday we present our usual fare of vintage images from New England modified racing’s Golden Era. Special thanks go out to our friend New York State Racing Historian Roger Liller for adding a nice image from his region of the country, and as always, our appreciation to our friend Tom Ormsby who not-only contributed a shot from his collection, but also serves as our Webmaster, Publisher, & Editor. Lastly, don’t forget, Hall of Famer Billy Greco is hosting a picnic & car show on Sunday, Aug 11th at the Polish American Club located at 194 W. Spring Street in West Haven, CT. The event serves as a fundraiser for the NEAR mobile museum. Get your tickets by contacting Billy at 203-378-7945. To be held under the pavilion on the grounds of the Polish American Club, the event is a rain or shine affair which runs from noon to 6pm. That’s it for this week! As-always, email reaches me at  foreveryounginct@gmail.com

More Mid-Week Modified Memories….  

Captured here in the 1950s, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member the late Sparky Belmont (real name Michael Belmonte), was a Plainville track champion, as-well as a big star on Harvey Tattersall’s UNITED circuit. After a convincing victory in a 100-lap contest at Plainville in 1968, he collapsed during the post race celebration, and passed-away on the spot. “Sparky” had been a star on the post war Midget circuit before switching to stock cars. He was among the most-popular drivers of his generation with both fans, and his fellow competitors. (Shany Photo).

Captured here following a victory at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl, New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Gene Bergin was among the first HOF inductees back in 1998. From his NEAR HOF biography; “Gene Bergin began and ended his career at the Stafford Motor Speedway. He qualified in the first race he entered but was disqualified when it was learned he was only 17 years old in 1949. He returned when he was of age to start a 29 year career competing and winning at all the southern New England race tracks. He was always a hard charger either on dirt or asphalt. He won the 1962 Riverside Park championship and the 1967 Stafford Motor Speedway championship in 67, the first year it was paved. One of his most significant wins was the 1971 Stafford 200. He started on the pole and led every lap to win in Bob Judkins 2X, the first ever NASCAR-legal Pinto-bodied modified. Other career highlights include winning an All Star race at Wall Stadium, and winning the Trenton qualifier at Thompson. Bergin was runner-up at the 1972 Race of Champions in Trenton. In addition to the 2X, he was mostly identified with driving Bebe Zalinski’s M6.” (Shany Photo).

He was one of the biggest names to have emerged from the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl during its early history, and no-doubt sold a lot of tickets during the shoreline oval’s formative years. Love-him or hate-him, the late Dick Beauregard was a winner. During a relatively-short Speedbowl career of only a decade, he managed to notch a pair of modified titles along with over-40 feature victories. Both controversial and immensely-popular at the same-time, Dick retired in 1962 as a champion. This one captures him in one of his more recognizable rides, the Black Panther #1. (Shany Photo).

From our friend, New York State Racing Historian Roger Liller comes this gem of an image. We’ll let him elaborate; “Here’s a Connecticut driver that took Rhinebeck Speedway in New York by storm, Russ Truelove of Waterbury. He started racing at Rhinebeck in the early 1950s, and started winning features right away. He raced New England tracks also, and broke 2 records in one night at Connecticut’s former Candlelight Stadium.  He left racing for a while, and then returned to Rhinebeck in the late 50s driving Warren Hansen's #00 winning the 1958 track championship. A Navy man with good aeronautical skills, he then left for Michigan to work for Leer aircraft finally returning to his home state of Connecticut. Russ is 3rd on the all-time feature win list at Rhinebeck with 13 features. This is a great McDowell photo of Russ at Rhinebeck with the #53 (one of his early cars), in the early-50s.” (McDowell Photo Courtesy Roger Liller)

Here’s a nice really-early image from what was then officially-known as Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. Shot from a unique angle by original shoreline oval photographer Shany Lorenzent, it captures pioneering ‘Bowl combatant Tex Pierce behind the controls of a #44 cut-down. The old “Sand Safety Strip” which lined the outside of the track during its early years can plainly be seen here. The sand was paved-over in 1966, substantially widening the racing surface. (Shany Photo)

One-third of a brother-act that also included siblings Bob “Allie” Gada and the late Larry “Insta” Gada, Chris “Wally” Gada wheeled this slick Mustang-bodied Modified in Bowl’ action. Famous for their loyalty to products of a FORD-nature, the team fielded winning entries for years at a track that was overwhelmingly populated by entries propelled by “The General” during their generation. It was no-fluke, as the Gada’s won big. They campaigned this car simultaneously with their winning (Bob being a multi-time track champ), full-bodied entries. Later, veteran Joey Trudeau got-behind the controls, going-on to grab the 1971 Modified championship. The rich Gada racing tradition continues today at Waterford. (Shany Photo).  

Last week we ran a shot of this little cut-down with the late Gavin Couper behind the controls mentioning that it had also been piloted by a number of drivers probably more familiar to students of Speedbowl history; here’s one of those racers. One of the shoreline oval’s more enduring figures and a top New England modified racer of the 1950s & 60s, the late Joe McNulty of Gales Ferry, Connecticut recorded victories at a variety of the region’s speedplants, but was particularly-proficient at the ‘Bowl where he claimed a career-total of 16 modified division feature triumphs. (Shany Photo).

To a certain degree, the late George Pendergast gets short-changed when it comes to talking about the racing feats of drivers from his generation. Pendergast was in-fact, a noteworthy winner grabbing checkers all-over New England. Perhaps overshadowing his accomplishments behind the wheel was a fun-loving persona. Ever-the-Rogue (in a good-way), few escaped George’s practical jokes and desire to make racing an absolutely-entertaining endeavor both on & off the track (just ask his old pal, NEAR Hall of Famer, Billy Harman). This shot captures George at Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl during that tracks notorious “Cut-Down Era.” (Shany Photo).

Pictured here during the earliest days of Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl is local driver, Joe Couillard. A fixture at the shoreline oval, Joe became a member of the racing staff after his days as a driver concluded. Very-personable, he was well-liked by both his fellow competitors and the fans. He remained an integral part of the scene at the Speedbowl for many seasons. (Shany Photo).

As we all know, stock car racing can be a dangerous business, and during its decades-long history, the Waterford Speedbowl has not been immune to tragedy. Pictured here early in his ‘Bowl career is John “Jack” Griffin who holds the unfortunate distinction of being the shoreline oval’s singular racing fatality. On a Saturday evening in August of 1954, he was racing his “cut-down” style coupe in the Speedbowl Sportsman feature (a particularly-messy event that had already experienced 2 red flag periods), when another accident occurred directly in-front of him. He tried to avoid the wreck, but clipped the wheel of another competitor and rolled several times. Sadly, he died of his injuries in the early hours of the next day at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, CT. The tragedy effectively ended the “cutdown era” at the Speedbowl, with a return to the full-coupes for the 1955 season. (Shany Photo).

BONUS SHOT: Here’s New England modified shoe that’s kind of “slipped through the cracks” in a historical-sense. Starting his racing career in Florida, Ronnie Wyckoff quickly became one of the area’s premier drivers after relocating northward in the early 1960s. A 3-time Riverside 500 champion, he found success at virtually all of New England’s modified venues during his long career and drove for the some of the best in car-owners. As evidenced by his triple in those prestigious Riverside 500 events, he was particularly good at the long-distance shows. Though Plainville Stadium records are incomplete at this time (we’re working on-it), he ranks near-the-top on that track’s all-time winners list. Couple that with a parcel of victories at Riverside Park between 1974-1980, and you have what could only be considered a stellar career. This Stafford shot captures him when he was piloting the potent Simons Bros. #9, one of the most-sought-after rides in the region. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).

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